Scotland: Loch Ness, Inverness, Trains, and Tubes

Back from Scotland!

I’m sorry I didn’t post sooner–there was no internet on the train, nor was the internet at the station worth a crap, and I was too tired to even write the post.  I apologize for the length.

I began this leg of my journey at London’s Euston Station.  My train was the Caledonian Sleeper, which I discovered at The Man in Seat 61’s website (see link).  I collected my tickets at the station.

AAAAAALL ABOOOOOOAARRRD!  Okay, they don't really yell that.

AAAAAALL ABOOOOOOAARRRD! Okay, they don’t really yell that.

All photographs in this post © Elizabeth West 

A word about trains in the UK:

  • A train car is a carriage.  On the sleeper, your bed is a berth.  Your berth is located in a compartment.   A rail company employee is handy all night to help you if you need your door unlocked or if you have a problem.  He/she is known as an attendant.  He has a little office on the carriage so if you need him, just knock and he will help you.
  • When you get the ticket, you NEED to keep it until you are completely done with your trip. Why? Because you need it to both enter and exit the platform.  There is a little machine with a gate, not unlike the tube station barriers I remember from London in 1983.  You feed your ticket through the slot and it comes out the top and opens the gate.  Without it, you can’t get in or out.
  • Keep your ticket handy on trains where you are in a seat. They will come round and check your ticket.  If you get on a train without one, you can get fined.  Sometimes you can buy a ticket ON a train if you mess up.  But they want to see that you are holding a valid ticket.
  • You can buy a ticket online and collect it from a machine at the station. This is what I did for both Inverness and Cardiff.  All you need is the credit card you bought the ticket with and your confirmation number.  MAKE SURE YOU HAVE THAT CONFIRMATION NUMBER.

On the Caledonian Sleeper, if you are in standard class, you may use the first class lounge to sit and charge your device, buy a drink, or buy dinner and eat.

The First Class Lounge on the sleeper.  Only train in Britain with real leather sofas.

The First Class Lounge on the sleeper.  Only train in Britain with real leather sofas.

If it’s full of first-class passengers, however, you will have to go back to your compartment and wait until the lounge is less busy.  My advice–there is only the one lounge car, so get your butt up there as fast as possible if you want to eat.  You can purchase food to take back to your compartment if you like or if you’d rather not wait, but the to-go stuff is limited.

Tomato pasta dinner, Caledonian Sleeper

Eating on the train.  Tomato pasta and the bread was delicious.  Tennant’s lager.  The food is heated up, but it was pretty good.  Real cutlery, real dishes.  Sorry it’s blurry.

ScotRail is supposed to refurbish the sleeper.  They actually almost did away with it altogether, but there was a huge outcry because so many people used it to commute, and it was a sort of traditional thing.

The train doesn’t leave until eight or nine o’clock, so you’ll be tired by the time you get on.  The bed is okay; it’s just narrow.  You get two pillows and a thick duvet, and you can control the temperature in the compartment.  I was nice and warm.

The corridor is extremely narrow and the compartments tiny.  First class is just standard class with more frills and the extra berth (upper) folded up into the wall (single occupancy).  If you’re traveling standard class, you will be sharing with someone of the same sex.  They’ve been doing it this way for years with very little problem and you’ll probably be fine.  Or you can spring for first class –if you buy your ticket far enough in advance, you can save money.

Compartment on the sleeper.  The sink is beneath the counter top under the window. You lift it up and it does have hot and cold water.  You get a tiny plastic-wrapped towel and a little bitty soap.  Whee!

Compartment on the sleeper.  The sink is beneath the counter top under the window. You lift it up and it does have hot and cold water.  You get a tiny plastic-wrapped towel and a little bitty soap.  Whee!

WARNING!  The walls are very thin!  You can hear everything.  If you’re planning to shag your sweetie, good luck not bumping your head, and keep it silent.

Someone coughing kept me from sleeping the first night and I was freaking exhausted the next day.  The second night, I had the compartment to myself (yay!) because of a double booking, but my neighbor was playing a video and I could hear every word.  I knocked and politely asked him to turn it down, and he obliged.

———-

LOCH NESS

I met up with Inverness Tours at the station.  What I did was a share-a-tour deal, where someone purchases the tour and they sell off the unoccupied seats.  You then get to go on the tour without having to get a huge group of people together.  A very nice American couple had booked the tour–it was just the three of us.  Our guide was George Munro, who is a retired local and a delightful storyteller with a lovely Highland accent.  He was hilarious and we loved him.

A shot of Inverness.  This is the River Ness, which flows through Loch Dochfour and through Inverness.

A shot of Inverness. This is the River Ness, which flows out of Loch Ness, through Loch Dochfour, and through Inverness.

Here is a video I took of Loch Ness from Urquhart Castle. I wanted you to see and hear the sound of the wind and the lapping of the water.  It’s an absolutely lovely place.

The wind is very strong there.  I had a scarf wound loosely round my neck, and when I went to the top of the castle citadel, I had to knot it because the wind actually unwound it and almost removed it!

Loch Ness is almost 24 miles long and contains more fresh water than all the lakes in England and Wales combined.  At its deepest point, it is 875 feet down.  Sadly, expeditions found mostly fish and little plankton-type things.  There is not enough food there to support a large monster, and all the sightings are explainable by other means.  But Nessie or no Nessie, you can’t deny its beauty.

See?  :)

See? :)

The presentation at the Loch Ness Centre at Drumnadrochit (pronounced Drum na DROCH it, with the ch pronounced like in loch) acknowledged that the monster probably doesn’t exist.  It left enough ambiguity that you could choose to believe if you wanted to.

Nessie?  What’s happened to your pond, girl?  Driest September in history? Aww, well hump on back to the loch then, lassie. 

Nessie?  What’s happened to your pond, girl?  Driest September in history? Aww, well hump on back to the loch then, lassie.

Before we went to the Centre, we crawled all over Urquhart Castle.

I told you that next time you saw this, it would be a picture by me.  Here ya go! This is Urquhart Castle from the citadel with the loch in the background.

I told you that next time you saw this, it would be a picture by me.  Here ya go! This is Urquhart Castle from the citadel with the loch in the background.

A stronghold during the Wars of Scottish Independence in the 14th century, the castle was partially blown up by the Clan Grant in 1692 to prevent the Jacobites from taking it over and it was never rebuilt.  In 1715, a storm caused further damage to Grant Tower.  The remains have been preserved and the castle’s ruins are now a huge tourist attraction.

I’ve wanted to see this place since I was a kid.  Despite the gimmicky atmosphere of a short, eight-minute historical documentary before we went to the castle, and a huge gift shop, it did not disappoint.  I loved walking around and reading the informational plaques. I climbed to the top of Grant Tower and only stayed long enough to take a couple of shots, because it too open and the wind too strong for me to feel comfortable with the height.

Shots of the castle:

Urquhart Castle--Grant Tower from a small grassy area. You can see the hole where Clan Grant blew up the tower to keep the Jacobites from taking it.

Urquhart Castle–Grant Tower from a small grassy area. You can see the hole where Clan Grant blew up the tower to keep the Jacobites from taking it.

 

Urquhart Castle--this is where the stables would have been, close to the gatehouse.

Urquhart Castle–this is where the stables would have been, close to the gatehouse.

 

The citadel at Urquhart.  This is Scottish weather--sunny in some shots,  cloudy and dark and rainy in others.

The citadel at Urquhart. This is Scottish weather–sunny in some shots, cloudy and dark and rainy in others.

On the way back, we stopped by the side of the road to get a shot of a house with some sheep in front of it and I broke off a sprig of heather.  I’m pressing it to keep; I hope I can get it home without it falling apart.

This house.  These sheep.  Right after this, it started pouring, though the sun kept shining. 

This house.  These sheep.  Right after this, it started pouring, though the sun kept shining.

Because I hadn’t slept well on the train going up, I was far too exhausted to explore much of Inverness after George dropped us off.  We went to Leakey’s Bookshop, a converted church on Church Street near the city centre.  Sadly, the café there had shut for good, but the bookstore was still open. I bought a cookery book full of historical photographs of Scottish people and full of traditional recipes.  I can hardly wait to try some of them–if I can find ingredients.

Haggis (the national dish of Scotland), neeps (swede turnips), and tatties (potatoes).  Haggis is very rich, very meaty and spicy.  It's not bad, if you forget what it's made of (sheep offal).

Haggis (the national dish of Scotland), neeps (swede turnips), and tatties (potatoes). Haggis is very rich, very meaty and spicy. It’s not bad, if you forget what it’s made of (sheep offal).

Coming back, I lucked out and though I got the same berth in the same compartment, I didn’t have to share this time.  I slept hard (with the aid of two glasses of wine, ha ha), on the way back to London.  In fact, I was still sleeping when the attendant knocked the next morning with my tea, only to tell me “We’ll be arriving in forty minutes.”  GAH!

Things it’s hard to do on a moving train:

  • Use the loo (again, much bigger than on airplanes, and you should see the first class train loo).  It’s hard to stand up without losing your balance if the train lurches.  Just be careful.
  • Get dressed.
  • Make a cup of tea.
  • Drink a cup of tea whilst getting dressed and packing at the same time.
  • Put on makeup–especially eyeliner.  I skipped it.
  • Walk.
  • Take pictures out the window.

Things to know about the tube:

  • Lots of stairs; no lifts (elevators) in many stations, though there are escalators in some.  So don’t overload your bags.
  • Most people just want to get where they’re going, but if you’re polite, they will answer a question or help you if needed.  I was trying to drag my borrowed roller bag up a particularly evil set of stairs at Paddington when coming back from Cardiff.  When I got nearly to the top, my bag suddenly levitated as a man behind assisted me up the last few steps.  He probably just wanted me out of his way, but I thanked him politely anyway.
  • People do talk, but mostly to each other, if they’re sitting with people they know (and on the phone sometimes). There are exceptions–I was at the head of a queue with some people and it suddenly shifted so the front was at the other end.  He joked to me, “Of course, now we’re at the END of the line!”  I said, “I know, right!”
  • On the London Underground, the ticket-operated gates have been replaced by automated barriers that you touch your Oyster card on. Just hold your card over the big yellow button until the light turns green and the gate will open.  Do it when you enter and when you leave to go up to the street.
  • Transport for London will put you on a bus (railway replacement service) if the tube is shut for some reason. I had to do this today–they were doing engineering work on the District line from Turnham Green to Richmond Station, where I had to pick up the bus.  They don’t charge extra for this service either.  I asked the underground attendant who was in charge if we had to use Oyster for the replacement bus, and he said no.  Thank you, TfL!  The bus stops as close to where the affected tube stations are as possible.

I shouldn’t have any problem with the buses, either, though I didn’t ride them last time.  They’re practically idiot-proof now, with stop announcements and Oyster on them as well.  All you have to do is know what your stop is.

It’s almost time for a lovely dinner, so I’ll go now.  Tomorrow, I’ll be visiting with my step-cousin and we’re going to a car boot sale (garage sale) for her kid’s school.  On Monday:

HARRY POTTER STUDIOS!!!

Back to the insanity that is Euston Station!

 

Wales–Tintern Abbey and the National Museum in Cardiff

Tonight is my last night in Cardiff.  Boo!  I like this city, and Wales in general.  I’m definitely coming back.  Tomorrow, I go back to London and from there, hop on the Caledonian Sleeper to Scotland.

I’m resting my feet, which have decided to go rogue on me (tendinitis, etc.).  I can’t go out and walk around tonight, so I shall sit here and tell you of my adventures of the last two days instead.  Ready?  Here we go.

———-

All photos in this section © Elizabeth West except where otherwise indicated

30 September

This is where I had lunch today.

In the presbertery Tintern Abbey

I’ll explain.

After a very nice (too short) coffee shop visit with an online friend from my chat room (who just happens to live in Penarth!), I decided that today would be the day I knocked another item off the bucket list.  The coffee shop we met at was right next to the train station, so I bought a ticket to Chepstow.

This is Chepstow, near the bus station.

This is Chepstow, near the bus station.

What’s in Chepstow, in the Wye Valley?  Why, Tintern Abbey, of course!

The remains of this Cistercian abbey still stand, beneath a beautiful hill that is just beginning to show its autumn colors.  You reach it via train to Chepstow, and then you get to walk up the hill (another one–though not as steep as the headland to Penarth) and catch the number 69 bus, which lets you off across the road from the abbey.  When you come round that curve and catch your first glimpse….

There are no words.

I had a much nicer day for my visit here.  It was warm and sunny, with barely a cloud in the sky.  A pensioner (senior citizen) I spoke to on the bus said it had been one of the warmest and driest Septembers they could remember.

The abbey is basically walls, no roof, and low-walled bits of leftover ruins that mark where the monks lived, ate, slept, and worshiped.  It’s much bigger than just the church building itself.  You need at least a couple of hours to see it properly.  I’ll try to post some of the highlights here.

This is a book room--yay!  In back is where the monks kept vestments. 

This is a book room–yay!  In back is where the monks kept vestments.

In the refectory, the monks ate their daily vegetarian meal. 

In the refectory, the monks ate their daily vegetarian meal.

Kitchen

Kitchen. At the back, you can see a pass-through window, through which kitchen monks sent the food to the refectory.

 One surviving cupboard in the kitchen.  I assume it would have had a wooden door to keep the mice out.

One surviving cupboard in the kitchen.  I assume it would have had a wooden door to keep the mice out.

Inside the presbytery–the main part of the church–I walked around on paths that delineated where walls once stood.  The abbey is built in a cruciform shape, with north and south transepts.  In between the paths, the grass has obviously been treated–there are no weeds, though the green, carpet-like swaths are studded with small daisies this time of year.  It almost makes the church seem more churchlike than a surviving stone floor would have.

Oh, by the way, here is some of the original floor.

Oh, by the way, here is some of the original floor, in the ruins outside.

In Chepstow, I had bought a sandwich and a Welsh cake at Coffee #1 and brought it with me, intending to sit on the grounds and have my lunch.  But I had beat most of the tourists.  I had the abbey to myself, so I sat down on the low ledge that ran down the wall of the presbytery and had my lunch there, looking at the view that opened this post.

For the rest of my life, I will remember where I was when I had my very first Welsh cake.  It was the most delicious one I think I will ever have.  The sweet moistness of the fresh scone, along with the cool air inside the abbey and the peaceful quiet, made me feel perfectly content, a state I rarely find myself in.  This will be my happy place if I ever need it.  If the ghost of a monk had come along at that moment, I would have simply offered him a bite.

If I lived in Chepstow, I'd be here every day.  *sigh*

If I lived in Chepstow, I’d be here every day. *sigh*

———-

1 October

Today is my last day in Cardiff, so I went back to the National Museum Wales (Amgueddfa Cymru in Welsh).  It was open today (ha!).

Here is the museum, right next to Cardiff City Hall.  

Here is the museum, right next to Cardiff City Hall.

Upstairs, they had an impressive collection of ceramics and porcelain.  I know nothing about china and pottery, but I looked through the collection anyway.  I did recognize the Blue Willow pattern on some of the dishes, and I know Flow Blue when I see it, though they didn’t have any.  That’s the extent of my knowledge in this area.

Walking down to the art section, I found to my delight that they had a Richard Wilson exhibit on.  This famous Welsh landscape artist influenced many other artists, including J.M.W. Turner.  There is a Turner exhibit in London that I plan to see, so this was a fabulous precursor to it.

In another gallery, the museum had showcased an exhibit called The Great War: Britain’s Efforts and Ideals. World War I artists were commissioned to produce propaganda-like works to boost the war effort.  They drew soldiers, sailors, aircraft and ship building, and women who worked back home while their husbands were at the front lines.  Since 2014 is the 100th anniversary of the outbreak of World War I, it is a historically important exhibit.  You can view the works at the link.

The museum houses one of the most impressive collections of Impressionist art outside Europe proper, and this was what I had come to see.  And there it was–Gallery 16.  Here are some of the works I saw:

A bronze copy of Rodin’s The Kiss.

A bronze copy of Rodin’s The Kiss.

Image:  museumwales.ac.uk

 

Paintings from Claude Monet’s Water Lilies series.  Here is one. 

Paintings from Claude Monet’s Water Lilies series.  Here is one.

 Image:  museumwales.ac.uk 

 

$$$-RENOIR A2495/3078T 300/A-0

La Parisienne, known as The Blue Lady, by Pierre Auguste Renoir.

Image:  museumwales.ac.uk

 

On the first wall, I saw it!  A VAN GOGH!

Rain, Auvers, by Vincent Van Gogh.

Rain, Auvers, by Vincent Van Gogh.

 Image:  museumwales.ac.uk

I didn’t know they had it.  Standing right on top of it gave me a thrill.  When you are up that close, you can see how heavy-handed Vincent was with his short brush strokes compared to Monet’s swirly blending. The paint is very thick, and the rain is streaks over the top of it, as though he painted the scene first and let it dry, then scraped the brush along the top of the paint to make the paths of the raindrops.  He made the strokes in the building roofs at left very smooth, and they almost appear wet.

It’s not a stormy rain; perhaps it was only a gentle shower or summer cloudburst that inspired this work.  You get the sense that it didn’t last long, and when the sun came back out, the fields would smell damp and earthy and the air fresh.

When you step back, as with many Impressionist paintings, it all sort of clicks together.  Being so close and breathing the air in front of this painting (the existence of which, until today, I was unaware) made me feel close to him somehow.  Art is what we have instead of a time machine.

Downstairs, the museum had a really neat little science thing called The Evolution of Wales, about the geographical and biological development of Wales.  It went from the Big Bang all the way through to when the first humans appeared.  Along the way, they had volcanic rocks, a moon rock (yeah!), lots of fossils, and a few dinosaur skeletons.

——-

I spent the rest of the day shopping in the City Centre.  It was cloudy and cool and misty/rainy today–much as I had expected Wales to be.  The mist was so light, however, that I could sit beside the church downtown and eat my Greggs egg salad sandwich and Jammy Heart biscuit (shut uuup, I had orange juice with it) under a thick tree and not even get wet.  I barely needed my brolly (umbrella), and by the time I got out of Primark, after trying on four pairs of jeans, the sun was out again.

Thus endeth my journey to Wales.  I loved it here and I want to come back.  Next time, I plan to visit the following:

Caerphilly Castle

Brecon Beacons National Park

Snowdonia and North Wales

And especially the Pembrokeshire coast

Don’t go anywhere, Wales–I’ll be back to see you soon, I promise.  Rwy’n dy garu di.

Wales–Cardiff Bay and Penarth

All photos in this post © Elizabeth West

29 September

Wow, I had written a lovely post for you, and then I accidentally deleted it.  GAH!!  I’ll do my best to recreate it.

I was going to go to the National Museum in Cardiff, but I misread the website.  It’s shut on Mondays.  So I hopped on a bus and went to Cardiff Bay instead.

Cardiff Bay with a view of the headland, where Penarth is located.

Cardiff Bay with a view of the headland, where Penarth is located.

The bay is a huge waterfront area that used to be shipping, but now it’s a business and recreational development.  It houses the Wales Millennium Centre, along with Roald Dahl Plaas (named after the author, who was born in Llandaff).  These locations, along with many others, will be very familiar to fans of Doctor Who and Torchwood.

Wales Millennium Centre--they were on top replacing some of the copper roof tiles.

Wales Millennium Centre–they were on top replacing some of the copper roof tiles.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Roald Dahl Plaas-they were taking down  event stuff, Cardiff Bay

Roald Dahl Plass not looking its best–they were clearing up after a Men’s Health magazine fitness event.

I had a nice conversation with a workman named Adam on the Plaas.  Like everyone else here, he asked me where I was from as soon as he heard my accent (yes, Virginia, in Wales, YOU have an accent, not them!).  We talked a bit of politics, my holiday, and about London.

Adam was talking about Londoners and he said, “We don’t like skinny women here.  We like our women meaty!” Perhaps he was only speaking for himself, but it was very amusing.  And encouraging, since I can’t seem to shake these last fifteen pounds.  I should definitely come back here!

Ianto's Wall 2, Cardiff Bay

Ianto’s Shrine–Torchwood fans will know what this is. All others, go watch the show on Netflix immediately.

The Pierhead Building is the home of the Welsh National Assembly.  I went inside it to view an art exhibit.  It’s a really lovely building.  It used to be the headquarters for the Bute Dock Company.  The staircase is a masterpiece of Victorian tiling.

The Pierhead building, Cardiff Bay

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Victorian tiled staircase, Pierhead Building, Cardiff Bay

Mermaid Quay (pronounced KEY) is part of the bay development.  You can shop, eat, and take a boat to Penarth from there.

Looking back at Mermaid Quay from the Daffodil- the shuttle boat to Penarth, Cardiff Bay

Which I did! :)

The water taxi is operated by The Open Boat tours.  It took me around the bay and to the marina at the bottom of the headland at Penarth.  The skipper, whose name I failed to get, kept me entertained by explaining all about Cardiff Bay.   It was a very nice ride, though breezy.  They keep blankets aboard but I didn’t need one.  It’s been humid and warmish in Wales and the cool breeze felt good.

I learned a lot.  For instance, I did not know that Cardiff Bay is NOT a bay; it’s a huge freshwater lake!  Yes, it is fed by the River Taff, which flows through the city of Cardiff, and the River Ely.  Every ten yards or so, there are bubbles coming up in the bay.  They’re big aerators to keep the water from going stagnant.  It’s like a huge fish aquarium.

An enormous swan--we saw his bottom, as he was feeding on something here.  I had to wait until he bobbed back up to take his picture.  No, I did not want a picture of a swan's bum.

An enormous swan–we saw his bottom, as he was feeding on something here.  I had to wait until he bobbed back up to take his picture. No, I did not want a picture of a swan’s bum.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Doctor Who Experience TARDIS, Cardiff Bay

The Doctor Who Experience building. I didn’t get to go–it is shut for regeneration. Boo! I’ll just have to come back. :)

Further on, you come to the barrage, which is like a huge dam separating Cardiff Bay from the sea.   Skipper explained to me how it all works.  It’s pretty cool, actually.

Cardiff Bay Barrage--closes off the bay from the sea-it's all freshwater from the Rivers Taff and Ely

Here is the barrage itself. 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Sluice gates that let the water out when the bay gets too full.

Sluice gates that let the water out when the bay gets too full.

Locks that lift the highway, Cardiff Bay Barrage, Cardiff Bay

These locks raise and lower the highway so boats can get out to sea from the bay. This is the only way to reach the ocean from there.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

We docked at Penarth.  I had to climb up the headland from the water.  Good thing I’ve been doing all that stair climbing at work.  It’s so steep that there were bits where I thought I might have to crawl.  I suppose people who live in Penarth are used to it.  At the top, I visited St. Augustine’s Church and its picturesque (and slightly creepy) old graveyard.

Window of St. Augustine's Church, Penarth

Pretty. I didn’t go inside, though the church is still in use and might have been open.

Angel, St. Augustine's Church, Penarth

I walked all the way around before I saw this. Don’t blink! 0_0

Penarth is a charming village built around and on the headland.  The streets are very steep.  I suppose they’re lucky they don’t get ice storms here like the ones we have in Missouri–you could not drive up these hills if they were slick.  Or walk up them!

I made my way to the Penarth Pier pavilion.  It took me so long to get here that it was shutting up, but I was able to get a cuppa (tea, what else?) to go and I took it down to the beach.  The tide had gone out and I had the wrong shoes for poking about in the mud, so I just sipped and ate a truffle from the Quay and looked out at the fog and mist over the sea.

The Pier Pavilion

The Pier Pavilion

Looking down the pier, Penarth

Looking out along the pier.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Looking down the beach from ON the beach, Penarth

A view down the beach from the beach–you can see some people with their doggie.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Then it was time to go, so I climbed back up the hill (oof!) along a path through Alexandra Park and back to the train station, where I grabbed a train back to Cardiff Central Station.

Looking up the hill from the pier, Penarth

The village of Penarth from the pier.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Path up the hill adjacent to Alexandra Park, Penarth

Along the path adjacent to the park. It was pretty and cool under here.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Despite the damp and dreary weather, this particular outing ended up as a very nice day.  I’m glad I did it, though I missed standing on the Torchwood hub (arrgh!) and it would have been nice to see the Doctor Who Experience.  I’m definitely coming back to Cardiff sometime, so I’ll just do those things then.

In my next post, I’ll tell you all about my visit to a mini-bucket list item (not the official bucket list, just an offshoot), and another delightful discovery.